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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/23/2001 -  
Aaron Copland: Violin Sonata
Maurice Ravel: Violin Sonata
Johannes Brahms (arr. Joachim): Four Hungarian Dances
Johannes Brahms: Violin Sonata # 3

Orli Shaham (piano)
Gil Shaham (violin)

Even the greatest of composers spawned a few turkeys in their time. The inclusion of some of these pieces on a program is a rare event but helps to illuminate an entire career. The Hungarian Dances are hardly Brahms’ finest hours, but they serve to illustrate the tenor of the times, the arrangements by his friend Joseph Joachim much more concerned with displays of violinistic virtuosity than solid musicality. Although the four displayed by the Shaham siblings last evening at Lincoln Center were expertly played, Mr. Shaham performing # 13 with a positively Kreislerian delicacy, these are more the stuff of encores and it was a bit odd to have them prominently featured mid-program. Even more rare in recital are the competent essays of bad composers, those men whose careers largely consisted of musical high crimes and misdemeanors. If one regarded only the more popular music of Aaron Copland, it would be natural to conclude (with considerable justification) that he was merely a hack, and yet there are a few pieces of genuine merit which seem legitimately, to paraphrase Mann, heartfelt but not inept. Such a study is the Violin Sonata, a poignant wartime statement of American nostalgia which sounded, in Mr. Shaham’s capable hands, like the most evocative poems of Charles Ives. If nothing else, the inclusion of these two journeys down roads less traveled by was intellectually satisfying, even if the recital as a whole was less than spectacular.

By far the best performance of the night was the reading of the Ravel. Having just heard the Bartok Piano Concerto # 1 this weekend in Los Angeles, my thoughts were of how this chamber work, written at exactly the same time, was in its way as shocking and revolutionary. Even though the composer marks the second movement (in English) “blues”, very few feel confident enough to play it the way that Ravel wanted (cf. the composer’s recording of Bolero, also at this same time, with the Lamoureux Orchestra). Mr. Shaham joyfully slid from one note to the other, the downward plunges so erotically inhabiting the mud as to produce nervous tittering even in an audience of the 21st century. This was the era of Europe’s fascination with Josephine Baker and her La Revue Negre; it was refreshing to hear a musical conception both so daring and so historically accurate. In the first movement, the duo expertly contrasted the beautiful lyrical passages in the violin with the choppy seas of the piano part, this very opposition serving to increase the breadth of the melody and the fluidity of the string line. These two movements were sublime, although the perpetual motion of the finale was a bit too relaxed and flaccid for my taste.

Having done more than justice to the Brahmsian marginalia, it was especially disappointing that the pair was so incapable of developing the large-scale structure of the mighty Third Sonata. Ms. Shaham was thoroughly overmatched by the music (I love my sister too, but I don't ask her to help me write these reviews), some of the most difficult in the entire accompanist repertoire. The trick in Brahms’ piano parts is to be able to enunciate your passages both clearly and powerfully without overstating them to the point of pianistic hegemony over the ostensibly featured solo instrument (by all accounts, Brahms himself failed in his own attempts at self-effacing performance etiquette). This is hard even for the most accomplished of keyboard artists, however this night Ms. Shaham made many mistakes, her attempt to obfuscate the situation with unhealthy doses of pedal only creating bothersome echoes which exacerbated the problem. Perhaps because of this distraction, Mr. Shaham never achieved any great sweep to his phrases; it was as if the pair could put over simple pieces well enough but was not comfortable with the grandiloquence of the major work on the program. This was especially ironic because of the immense size of his violinistic voice, one of the proudest among the current crop of fiddlers. I have heard Mr. Shaham often enough to know that he is endowed with a much larger ability and desire to properly present the classics. This could have been just an off night.

The concert was constructed so that the pianist received top billing. This approach only rings true if the accompanist is at an equal level of skill to the soloist and can thus provide total partnership musically and emotionally, as, for example, in the wonderful duo of Anne-Marie McDermott and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. However, it is obvious that Mr. Shaham is actually the headliner in the family. Perhaps these artists’ management, taking note of the hundreds of empty seats last evening, needs to reconsider their marketing strategy. After all, no one ever came to hear Nannerl Mozart play.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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